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Who Goes First? That is the Question: Reception and Receiving Lines

The virus has changed our lives in many ways, and Army protocol continues to evolve amid the challenges. We hope that, with the vaccine, life will soon be closer to normal. When that happens, there’s one updated tradition occurring in Army protocol that we would like you to be aware of and understand.

That change is the protocol surrounding Army reception lines!

Until a few decades ago, Army protocol for reception lines always followed the courtesy of “ladies first.” That was easy, because the majority of soldiers were male and attended with their wife or a female guest. But, times have changed!

Today couples come in all shapes and sizes. The soldier can be male or female; the guest can be male or female, and either military or civilian. What does that do to the Army tradition of “ladies first?”

There is protocol associated with the reception line that hasn’t changed. Here are a few pointers that will help you while you wait to go through the receiving line:

  • Once you arrive, find where to leave any coat or jacket that you don’t want to wear all evening.
  • Afterward, go directly to where the reception line is forming and stand side-by-side, with the soldier standing on the side nearer the receiving line.
  • Generally, there is no drinking or smoking while you are in line. However, if there is a large crowd and you do have time for a drink before you get in line, there will be a discard table prior to the receiving line for glasses and plates.
  • Ladies, if using a purse, tuck it under your left arm, so your right arm is free for shaking hands. Sunglasses should be stowed away, as photos are usually taken.
  • When you and your soldier reach the front of the line, your soldier steps up to the first person (the announcer) and gives your names. The announcer, in turn, introduces you to the actual first person in the receiving line, at which time you step forward, shake hands, and speak briefly to that individual. Remember, you do not shake hands with the announcer.
  • The Army protocol office tells us that the Army now recognizes that the correct way to proceed through a receiving line is this: The person who received the invitation goes first with his or her guest following second. This has always been the tradition for going through a receiving line at the White House because the person who received the invitation is most likely to be known to the President. Hence, he or she shakes hands and says hello to the President, and then introduces his or her spouse or guest.

Other pointers to remember:

  • “Receiving line” and “reception line” sound similar but have different meanings. The “receiving line” is made up of the host, hostess, and other special guests. They stand there to receive the guests. The “reception line” is made up of those waiting to meet and be greeted by those in the receiving line.
  • The red carpet is used to honor those standing in the receiving line, not those coming through in the reception line.
  • “Soldier” can be substituted with other words when referring to civilians that may be in attendance (i.e. sponsor, diplomat, etc.).

Let’s hope the virus will soon be under control and we’ll be back to attending receptions and balls, and our biggest worry will be, “who goes through the line first?”


Featured image photo courtesy of the 4th Infantry Division Public Affairs Office. 


  • Protocol and Etiquette Team

    Ann Crossley and Ginger Perkins are the authors of "The Army Spouse Handbook," the go-to guide for the 21st century Army spouse. The 440-page book describes situations that you may encounter as an Army spouse, irrespective of your spouse’s rank or assignment. The book is not meant to be read from cover-to-cover, but kept handy and used as a reference book when you need to know what to expect in social situations. Michelle Hodge, a seasoned spouse, has taught protocol and customs classes and continues to be an advocate for soldiers and family members. Lynda Smith, the newest member of the Traditions and Protocol team, enjoys finding new ways to bring old Army traditions to life with fun and humorous experiences, a little old-school vibe, and a modern twist.

1 Comment

  1. Sharita Knobloch

    Gosh, I learn new things every day! I seems like every formal event I’ve attended, some level of difference when it comes to receiving lines requires a little bit of winging it– but these guidelines sure help and give some solid direction for those moments that I don’t know what I should do with my hands. Thanks for your contribution, P&E Team!


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